Robin’s Underrated Gems: Talk Radio (1988)

In the late eighties and early nineties, it seemed that everything that Oliver Stone touched turned to gold for him, as most of the films he directed during that time period, such as Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July and JFK, would garner him much acclaim and Academy Award recognition (not to mention controversy). However, one underrated film that he made in between those ones kind of slipped through the cracks and that would be Talk Radio. This is a film that Oliver Stone doesn’t talk about much any more, not because he particularly dislikes it, but because it just doesn’t inspire him with the same type of enthusiasm as his other works. Because it was based on a stage play, Talk Radio is much more minimalist and small-scale than most of Stone’s films, especially when compared to his later approach to attacking the media in Natural Born Killers. Because the idea for Talk Radio didn’t originate from him, directing it probably felt more like a job to pay the bills rather than a project he had any real passion about. But that doesn’t mean Talk Radio isn’t just as good as Oliver Stone’s other works and doesn’t remain very topical and relevant 23 years later. The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize-nominated stage play from Eric Bogosian and Tad Savinar. Bogosian would collaborate with Stone in adapting his play into a screenplay and also reprise the lead role, which he had played on stage to much acclaim. Since the original stage production of Talk Radio had taken place entirely inside a radio studio, making it into a compelling feature film was obviously a daunting task. However, even if Oliver Stone’s heart wasn’t entirely in the project, he still knew how to take this limited, claustrophobic material and turn into a very compelling and riveting piece of cinema.

The protagonist in Talk Radio is a radio personality named Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian), who can most accurately be referred to as a “shock jock”. He hosts a very controversial, but popular radio show in Dallas where he uses his caustic sense of humour to express his outspoken political views, and his entire persona seems to be based around taking phone calls from viewers and angrily telling them off or hanging up on them if they don’t agree with him. Even though Barry seems to anger a lot of people, they always continue to tune in to his show and call him up while he’s on the air. Barry’s popularity has become strong enough that Dan (Alec Baldwin), his boss at the station, has managed to secure a deal that will allow The Barry Champlain Show to air nationwide. Talk Radio takes place over the span of a few days where Barry’s self-destructive tendencies become very apparent. He is currently conducting an affair with his producer, Laura (Leslie Hope), but seems to be yearning to get his alienated ex-wife, Ellen (Ellen Greene), back into his life when he invites her down to Dallas to witness the launch of his nationwide show. Dan wants Barry to temporarily tone things down on the air to avoid any danger of the deal being ruined before it is finalized, but Barry’s on-air performances only seems to grow more reckless and dangerous. Even worse, Barry finds himself receiving numerous death threats from nutjobs who say they want to kill him because of the views he expresses on his show. In one of the film’s most intense sequences, Barry opens up a package he just received while he’s on the air even though one of his callers has just told him that it’s a bomb.

The original idea for Talk Radio was largely inspired by Stephen Singular’s book, Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg. Much like Barry Champlain, Alan Berg was a very outspoken radio talk show host from Denver whose controversial views and abrasive personality often made listeners very angry, yet still drew his show very strong ratings. Even though he received his fair share of threats, nobody ever thought anyone would actually be crazy enough to go act on them until Berg was suddenly shot to death by two white supremacists in 1984. Talk Radio is an interesting character study of someone that you sense almost WANTS to come to an end like that! It’s sometimes been said that one’s enjoyment of Talk Radio may be very dependent on your tolerance for controversial shock jocks like Barry Champlain, but the film does not provide a lot of interesting insight into the psychology of someone like that. The more success Barry achieves, the more he seems to hate himself. In flashback sequences, Barry is shown as a much more idealistic person when he first breaks into radio because he’s so delighted to have an outlet to express his viewpoints. However, as time goes on, it becomes apparent that the only reason people listen to The Barry Champlain Show is not because they care about what he has to say, but because they enjoy hearing him get into arguments with his callers. Even though this revelation about why viewers tune into trashy tabloid radio and television talk shows is nothing new today, it was still a pretty fresh idea back in 1988, and Talk Radio was conceived at a time when controversial radio personalities like Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck were nowhere near as prevalent as they are now. The potential for The Barry Champlain Show to go nationwide only makes Barry angrier and it almost seems like he wants to do everything in his power to sabotage this. At one point, he even breaks down and delivers a scathing monologue where he denounces all of his listeners on the air.

On paper, Talk Radio may not have seemed like a project that was ideal for the cinematic medium since so much of it takes place within a very claustrophobic setting, but Oliver Stone’s outstanding direction and pacing somehow makes it work. As you could see by the previous clip, Stone uses some very innovative camera work and editing to draw a lot of energy and tension out of scenes that are essentially nothing more than characters speaking into a microphone. Since Eric Bogosian was primarily an unknown stage actor before this film came out, the studio wanted a much bigger star in the role of Barry Champlain, but Stone and Bogosian were able to convince them that no actor could have played the part better than him. The original stage production of Talk Radio was almost a one-man show at times, and since so many scenes sink or swim on the words of Barry Champlain, it’s absolutely vital that the person playing him not only be a good actor, but actually sound like a convincing radio host. Bogosian does an outstanding job at carrying the film and making Barry into a compelling individual to watch, even when he’s not particularly likable. While the presence of Eric Bogosian didn’t translate to big box office dollars for Talk Radio, the film probably wouldn’t have worked at all without him. Bogosian is ably supported with strong performances from the rest of the cast, particularly a scene-stealing turn by Michael Wincott as a perpetually stoned caller who is actually invited by Barry to come down to the studio and appear on the show! In 2007, the original stage production of Talk Radio was actually revived for a run on Broadway, with Liev Schreiber in the role of Barry Champlain, and this opened a lot of people’s eyes to how ahead of its time the material really was. Talk Radio remains one of the lesser known and underrated films in the career of Oliver Stone, but in a way, it’s one of his greatest achievements. He was able to take material that should have been hampered by the limitations of the stage and turned into a really good film, which is not only fascinating to watch but still very relevant to the world we live in today.

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